Ashley Qiu, Author


Ashley Qiu

Dale leaves the Goodwill, clutching his new sneakers by the flimsy shoelaces, swinging them back and forth. He saunters down the slanted sidewalk, the wind tickling his exposed toes through the soles of his ravaged loafers. He doesn’t shiver or break his stride. Soon he settles on a bench at the boardwalk near the ocean and removes the old shoes, tossing them into a nearby trash can.

Below him, the waves lap rhythmically against the mellow shore, frothing as they curl. For a moment, he admires the fading colors of his new buy—all he could afford with the six dollars he had in his pocket. They don’t look like much of an upgrade, but Dale is satisfied. Gingerly, he slips them onto his naked feet; they feel scratchy at first but are surprisingly cozy. A while later, Dale stands at the edge of a cliff overlooking the waves, not quite sure how he has gotten there. A joyous shout snatches his wandering mind and guides it to the shore, where a blurry figure of a boy prances across the sand in his sneakers. Dale notices that the boy’s shoes are nicer than his own; they are embellished with red and blue patterns vivid enough to satisfy any child’s desires.

A glimmer of light races across Dale’s vision. It bounces off the choppy blonde hair of a youthful woman, her arms outstretched as her son leaps over the golden sand towards her. The image is like a painting, one that belongs to a larger collection in a gallery’s sidewalk display. The woman turns toward Dale, and a sense of urgency strikes him and he drops his hand into his pocket, his wrinkled fingers scrambling until he feels the worn-out wallet buried at the bottom. He unfolds it. It’s empty except for the photo he has had forever. He has memorized every angle and shadow, but he has to be sure. This is not the time to mess up.

He recalls the one-bedroom apartment they used to share, too small for the two of them and perhaps one more, those early mornings when the sun rose over the dirty white buildings of the city, and the warm glow would cast curtain webs across his sleepy face while she stumbled out of bed. Her bare toes landing on the scratched wooden floor, they would lead her to the corner kitchen with its faded cabinets. The forever bursting trash bag would be hanging on its usual drawer knob, revealing eggshells and the skeletal remains of frozen food boxes. Littered on the linoleum counters would be all the cans full of cigarette butts from the night before. He remembers the cold shower on one particular morning; the hot water heater was broken for the third day in a row. He still feels the crinkle of the brown bag in his fingers. He had left without saying goodbye to his job working too many hours, even then feeling the edges of his mind fleeing like time.

Dale maneuvers toward the stairs leading down to the beach. It’s been so long – will she recognize me? She’ll probably be disgusted, terrified even. A force abruptly sucks in his body, dragging it towards the ground. His hands make contact first in a futile attempt to save himself; his wallet flings forward into the hedges. A sharp pain emanates from his knee, now buried in the gravelly pebbles.

It was his sneaker. The one that had so much potential when Dale spotted it in the second-hand store, now the cause of his agony. The front sole of the shoe dangles almost apologetically as Dale tears it off his foot in disgust. He raises his arm high over his shoulder, reeling it back to chuck the stupid thing as far as possible, but stops. After all, it’s just a shoe.

Ignoring his burning knee, Dale springs up and looks out to the waves, glittering blankets of amber and amethyst, pushing and pulling themselves to the shore. He knows that the ones he is searching for are gone; it’s too late. The broken sneaker abandons Dale’s shaky hand, landing in a thump. His shoulders slumped, he shuffles the shoe back on.

That night, with the few remaining coins in his pockets, he purchases a cheap bottle of glue. Sitting in the narrow alleyway he calls home, half-protected in the beat-up camo tent littered with a jumble of old scraps that function as clothes and his scratched-up water bottle, he sits with his legs stretched outside the tent, his shallow and angular features lit by the soft glow of the drugstore as he feverishly repairs the sneaker.

In the dark, he can hear the waves. The lulling crashing and the swift ripples rock Dale’s body in tiny motions, forward and back. His calloused fingers stroke the rim of the sole with care. He tries to snatch his wandering mind, tries to stop it from worrying about tomorrow, the day after that, and the day after. It tended to do that, go places he didn’t want to go, becoming a violent intensity that consumed his body and conscience. Moments of clarity came less and less frequently; he needed something to lift the noiseless fog shrouding him. The tent sways with him, desperately searching for something to anchor to, but failing.

As Dale squeezes the last bit of glue onto the shoe, he realizes that he has been holding his breath. He releases it, a stream of relief rippling from his old, broken body. Tenderly, he picks up the repaired shoe and holds it close to his chest, so close that he can feel his steady heartbeat through the aged rubber, and he promises never to let go.